Pencils? Check. New bookbag? Check. Gym clothes? Check. A balanced breakfast and lunch may be the only essential tools parents forget to give their children this week as they return to school, says dietician Anne Marie Armstrong.
Armstrong, a native of Grand Falls-Windsor, works with Atlantic Canadian Loblaws stores (Dominion, Save Easy and No Frills) and is based in Halifax, but was in St. John’s this week speaking to media on the importance of filling children’s bellies with the proper nutrition as they are being fitted out with the proper school supplies.
With the high cost of fresh produce and a seemingly increasing list of foods that are banned from schools and daycares, this can often be overwhelming, Armstrong said.
“It gets overwhelming for everyone, but for parents who have kids going to school for the first time, it’s very overwhelming,” she said.
“Mornings and suppertimes are the most stressful times in families’ lives.”
Armstrong also had tips for families on a budget who might be feeling the pinch of having to shell out for new school supplies on top of everything else.
Eg Walters, general manager of the Community Food Sharing Association, said there’s a particular strain on local food banks at this time of year.
“The little bit of disposable money that was available is gone towards new clothes and there are less donations because people are away on summer holidays,” Walters said.
Her main advice for parents is to think about balance — a common mistake she sees is people not balancing their children’s meals to include at least three of the four food groups. This means a sandwich alone might not cut it; a sandwich with a yogurt and an apple will.
Protein and fibre are two things to look for, she said.
“The reason why we recommend that is it keeps your energy levels stable and keeps you full a little bit longer, so it helps you get from your breakfast to your mid-morning snack or lunch,” she explained.
“We know that when we’re not fully satisfied it comes to being tired earlier, getting cranky and not having energy to get through your day.”
For children, the effects can be even more drastic.
When your mom told you as a child that you needed to eat a good breakfast to be able to learn, she wasn’t joking — studies have shown for years that hunger negatively affects students’ ability to concentrate.
According to a new poll of Canadian teachers conducted by Angus Reid Forum for the Quaker brand, 96 per cent of those who responded reported observing a reduced attention span in students they believed to be hungry. Seventy-two per cent said the students showed poor memory function and 71 per cent said they showed difficulty problem solving.
“I recommend having something within the first two hours of getting up,” Armstrong said.
“If your children are not the type who like to eat first thing in the morning, give them a smoothie they can drink on the bus or in the car. If their breakfast isn’t substantial, make recess a little more substantial.”
Smoothies are best made with fresh or frozen fruit and Greek yogurt, which has about three times the protein of regular yogurt and is thus more satisfying, Armstrong said.
When it comes to packed lunches, parents should remember to keep things simple and varied, she said. Cheese, crackers and grapes are a good option as are chunky salads such as a Greek salad with cucumber, tomatoes and feta, but no lettuce. Leftovers are also often a good choice, she said, noting they’re usually good for two days.
“If you know your child loves the quesadillas you had the night before or the homemade lasagna, chances are good that they’re going to like it for lunch, too,” she said.
Sandwiches — cut with cookie cutters to be child size and fun — are still a great standby and hummus is a nutritious protein choice in schools where peanut butter isn’t allowed for allergy reasons, she said.
Armstrong recommends calling the school to get the list of banned foods, but said it’s usually only peanuts and fish.
“There are lots of food that are (generally) safe, like fresh fruits and veggies, most of the breads, most of the meats,” she explained.
“It’s usually the snacky foods (that are dangerous), which, as a dietician, I often say you want to limit, anyway.”
Armstrong is OK with some snacky foods in kids’ lunches, however, and even encourages parents to give them a sweet treat — as long as it’s just a small part of the meal and contains less than 10 grams of sugar.
“A lot of research shows that kids sometimes will eat their lunch if there is a snack in there, but keep it small, keep it portion-controlled and sugar-controlled,” she said, listing President’s Choice’s new peanut-free, single-packaged cookies, banana cakes and muffins as examples.
Armstrong and Walters both recommend parents take advantage of supermarkets’ markdown bins, and to shop later in the day, when items like bread — baked fresh that morning — are reduced in price to make way for new loaves the next day. Fruit is also often reduced, Armstrong said.
Frozen veggies are just as good and fresh ones and are less expensive, Armstrong said, and cheese, which often goes on sale, can be bought and frozen.
“Stay away from anything pre-chopped, or you’ll have to pay a premium,” she said. “Go for the big bags of carrots, broccoli and apples instead.”
Lentils and beans are cheap when bought in bulk and are nutritious when used in stews and chilis, which can also be frozen, she explained. Even packaged food like Kraft Dinner or frozen pizza has its place at the dinner table.
“Don’t feel bad using a convenience food, but balance it out,” Armstrong said.
“The concern is the sodium. If you’re going to use a packaged food, look for reduced sodium and think of the rest of your meal being pretty wholesome, with salad, fresh dairy and breads. No more than one packaged food per meal.”